Stepping Up for the Navajo Nation

FINDING A WAY: Torres repurposed scraps from Native regalia to make masks for healthcare workers.

Photography by Shikeyah Torres

It started when Ginger Sykes Torres saw a post on Facebook by a doctor at the hospital where she was born. It was a plea for protective face masks. Tuba City hospital, located on Navajo land in Arizona, was perilously short on personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health-care workers. At the time, the per capita rate of COVID-19 infection in the Navajo Nation was seven times higher than in the rest of Arizona; nationwide, the rate was second only to New York City’s.

Torres, ’02, an environmental consultant on leave to be a stay-at-home parent, was quarantining with her mom, her husband, Javier Torres, ’99, and their three kids, all of whom are under the age of 7. She felt compelled to help.

“My mom and dad were raised in Tuba City, and we have friends and family that live there and throughout the reservation,” she says. “I wanted to help keep the virus from spreading to them.”

The homegrown enterprise has produced and delivered more than 8,000 cloth masks and raised money to buy and distribute over 100,000 gloves, 2,000 gallons of bleach and 2,400 face shields.

Torres was grateful for her mom’s experience as the seamstress who had made her daughter’s regalia for powwows and hoop dancing. The two dug through scraps left over from that regalia and turned them into face masks. Within days, the Torreses’ Phoenix home became a mini-factory churning out cloth masks and then blossomed into a full-fledged PPE collection and distribution center.

With the help of friends Erika and Russ Dickey, Christy Vezolles, Karletta Chief, ’98, MS ’00, and Andrea Odegard Begay, ’00, what began as a modest response to one doctor’s request is now PPE for Navajo First Responders, which aims to serve not just Tuba City but frontline workers throughout the Navajo Nation. The homegrown enterprise has produced and delivered more than 8,000 cloth masks and raised money to buy and distribute over 100,000 gloves, 2,000 gallons of bleach and 2,400 face shields. Begay even commandeered a school bus from her son’s private high school to deliver supplies to remote areas. Partners range from a brewing company owned by Missy Begay, ’01, and Shyla Sheppard, ’04, which funded the purchase of hand sanitizer, to entrepreneur Chris Kawaja, ’98, who donated 5,500 KN95 masks.

Adults and children wearing masks standing outside a bus and holding suppliesTHEY DELIVER: A school bus borrowed from a local high school enabled volunteers to get the equipment to remote locations.

 

The group has contemplated forming a nonprofit as an umbrella for their activities, but for now chooses to focus on meeting the immediate needs on the ground. “Everything that comes in goes out the door to first responders as quickly as possible,” says Javier Torres, who is an attorney when he isn’t helping with the project. “Every infection we prevent now is like 20 infections down the road.”

“I'm not a doctor or a nurse on the front lines,” Ginger Torres says. “I just want to do everything possible to help our warriors fight this virus while keeping my own family healthy.”


Melinda Sacks, ’74, is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at msacks@stanford.edu.